Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney – his beard gone and hair short in preparation to start the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season – showed up in Daytona Beach fresh off the best season of his six-year fulltime career in the NASCAR Cup Series.
His three wins and 20 top-10 finishes are career high marks. And he carries plenty of optimism into 2022, despite the challenge of a new car to race.
Not only is Blaney the most recent winner on the Daytona high-banks – taking the trophy in the August 2021 regular season finale but he has three especially close near-misses in the Daytona 500. He’s finished runner-up twice – in 2017 and 2020 and dominated the 2018 race, leading 118 of the 207 laps only to finish seventh.
The 28-year-old driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford refuses to label himself a “sure-bet” for Sunday’s trophies. But he does like his chances.
“I don’t sit around and be like, ‘Man, I’m a race favorite,’” Blaney said. “But you have confidence in yourself. It builds confidence when you are successful at speedways.
“We won the August race here, so you build confidence and I think I have a decent idea of what to do to try to get to Victory Lane here. [But] I think a lot of people can be favorites. A lot of teams and drivers that have great opportunities to win this race, I just think you’ve got to do the things you can to the best of your ability and try to put yourself in a really good spot.”
And, as far as good spots go, Blaney said he was “over” his high-contact racing with Erik Jones two weeks ago at the Busch Light Clash exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Blaney’s Ford ended up in the wall and his day cut short and he was clearly irritated at the incident, even throwing his HANS device in frustration – a rare showing of such emotion from the popular driver.
Jones said the two drivers haven’t spoken yet and Blaney said he was ready to move on.
“I don’t have anything to really talk to him about,” Blaney said. “I’m over it. It’s funny, he thought I was supposed to apologize after I got fenced, but two people are going to think differently. I haven’t talked to him, but I’m over it. It’s the past and we’ll move on from it.”
Martin Truex Jr.: Pit stops are still a learning experience
As an exhibition race with a halfway break on a quarter-mile track, the Feb. 6 Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum didn’t feature pit stops.
But pitting the Next Gen cars—perhaps under green-flag conditions—certainly will come into play this week during Thursday’s Duels and during Sunday’s Daytona 500 that could present potential pitfalls, given the move to a single lug to fasten each tire and a larger 20-gallon fuel cell in the NASCAR Cup Series cars.
Given the new specs, fueling the cars could take roughly three seconds longer than changing the tires, throwing off the timing ingrained in drivers throughout years of working with the previous car.
“It’s going to—I’m sure—bite some people,” said Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “I really have no idea. Pit stops are all about timing. You kind of know when you stop, and the jack goes up how much time it will be. You kind of have a little bit of a routine with the gearing and the clutch and where your feet are on the pedals trying to leave the box, so definitely a little bit different here.
“It’s just something we have to get used to. It’s going to be weird the first time I’m sure—the first couple times—just figuring it all out. Pedals are different, shifters are different. The timing is going to be all different for us.”
Big Year for Bubba Wallace
A new clothing line launch from sponsor McDonald’s, a new teammate at 23XI Racing in Kurt Busch, a maiden victory under his belt from 2021 and a wedding in the works, it’s safe to say Bubba Wallace has an exciting 2022 on the horizon – one that he’d love to start off with a victory in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Expectations are high all around for Wallace as he arrived in Daytona Beach to start his fifth fulltime season in the NASCAR Cup Series rank. He is coming off his best season showing – that first victory (at Talladega, Ala.); a career best three top-five finishes and a career high in laps led (62) in a season.
“Obviously, we want to make the Playoffs and compete for a championship,” Wallace, 28, said. “That’s a given.
“For us, it’s just trying to be consistent. We had a lot of finishes where it was – win at Talladega and the ROVAL (14th place) next, so you were kind of back-and-forth. It’s smoothing out the graph on the result chart that’s important to us to bring that graph lower and lower.
“Everybody is figuring out this new car,” he added. “But making sure we are on the upper tier of those who figure it out first so we can have that advantage.”
Wallace’s team owners, perennial NASCAR Cup Series champion Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan, expanded the team – adding the No. 45 Toyota and driver, former series champion Kurt Busch. Already, the addition has been beneficial, according to Wallace.
“Kurt is fun,” he said. “He has a lot of one-liners that he will throw out that will catch you off-guard, but it is fun – it is cool in the heat of the battle to try to figure out what it takes for our team to be successful. He’s providing lots of insight and new perspective on how to look at things in a different angle to make sure we are crossing everything off the list. I think it’s been good.
“It’s been fun to have Kurt, so now that we are diving into the start of the season, we’re going to push each other to be the best that (we) can be.”